Art’s role in promoting sustainability

Sometimes it’s easy when you’re an operations person to get lost in the technical details of a project. To become so focused on the process, that you forget that not everyone understands either the issue or the aim.

Some 20 years ago, when I was writing my first environmental management plan for The Australian National University – a strategy to make our campus infrastructure more sustainable – I was approached by John Reid an artist and academic from the school of art, with (what seemed to me) an odd suggestion.

He proposed that we have artists and musicians collaborate with scientists and facilities managers to highlight environmental issues facing society and promote the objectives of the university plan.

He summarised it as a strategy that would give the often dry and impenetrable facts surrounding sustainability an emotional content that would connect to the broader community.

John was the convenor of a field studies programme in the school of art, that provided a value-added component to academic courses by taking artists and musicians into the field to do research that could be reflected in their works.

A key element of this approach was engagement with the local community and subject experts. The artistic outcomes would be then be exhibited with intention of building public awareness and fostering debate.

John’s proposal was to run a series of these field studies on the ANU campus examining various aspects of the environmental management plan (such as climate change, energy and water conservation, transport and biodiversity) and produced works that could exhibited, both in a gallery setting and in the landscape.

Of course, environmental art is not new but as I was writing the university’s business strategy it never occurred to me that art could be used as a mechanism for both community engagement and the promotion of corporate objectives.

However, using a combination of unbridled enthusiasm and practical examples, John convinced me that it could and the result was several very successful exhibitions that attracted large (and often vocal) audiences to the exhibitions. The most successful of these field studies both in terms of gallery numbers and works produced was Factor of Ten, where the collaboration between scientists and artists exposed new perspectives on key sustainability issues, which were then explored with the public in gallery floor talks.

While the impact of these field studies in promoting campus sustainability strategies is difficult to quantify, anecdotally the exhibitions appear to have had a long life, with specific works (and the associated environmental subject) creeping into corporate conversations years later.

Following on from the partnership with the campus sustainability groups, the Field Studies programme has broadened its regional focus, tackling a range of environmental issues in the wider Australian context.

For example, The Eden Project, which looked at marine and terrestrial issues on the south east coast of Australia, encompassing not only the effects of urbanisation, eco systems resilience and integration, logging and fishing, but also the cultural impacts on indigenous and local communities.   The artists engaged not only with the environment but with members of those communities, including farmers, academics, business operators and aboriginal elders.

More recently a field study was established at a new Canberra suburb called Crace, which has been developed to emphasise sustainable living. The project was run as part of a long-term study established by the University of Canberra, which is surveying the Crace community in an effort to quantify the effects of living in a sustainably designed suburb.

As with other field studies, artists worked in the environment, engaging with nature and the community to produce works that reflected their individual visions of this innovative urban landscape. The resulting art was exhibited in 2014, generating the desired public discussion about the future of urban design, as well as promoting a better understanding of how important sustainability will be in a growing Australian community.

The ANU field studies programme continues, albeit in a modified form that the reflects the economic realities of the modern tertiary sector, and John Reid, though now an emeritus fellow, maintains his enthusiasm for bringing an artistic perspective to complex social, scientific and technical issues.

As for me, a retired facilities manager who still sometimes forgets the importance of creating an emotional connection to the big issues facing organisations, he was (and continues to be) the voice on my shoulder reminding me that successes are built on committed communities.

  • A more detailed academic paper on the field studies programme is available here.
Bart Meehan

Bart Meehan

Visiting fellow and research associate, Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University

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